by EA Michael    –    8 min read

Jerusalem is one of the most iconic cities in the world. Most people picture the Old City, with its narrow streets, the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall. A visit here is, of course, a must for many tourists and pilgrims. However, Jerusalem is so much more than the religious sites of the Old City, and its future status will be critical to any negotiated peace settlement. In the eyes of the majority of the international community East Jerusalem, the Palestinian part of the city, is still part of the occupied West Bank, and will form the capital of any future Palestinian state.

A young Jewish boy in the Old City markets

Minaret in the Old City

Christians light candles in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre


Following years of unrest, the United Nations drew up a ‘Partition Plan‘ in 1947 outlining its plan to divide the land between the Jewish and Palestinian populations. Jerusalem was to be exempt from the division, instead remaining as a unique, undivided city in recognition of its complex religious and demographic character. But the Partition Plan never came to fruition. In 1948, Israel unilaterally declared its independence and in the Arab-Israeli war that followed, some 75,000 Palestinians were forced to leave the Western part of Jerusalem, as 38 out of 40 villages were destroyed or depopulated.

By the end of the war, West Jerusalem was declared the capital of the new state of Israel with Palestinian East Jerusalem coming under the control of Jordan. This remained the status quo until the Six Day War in 1967 when Israel expanded its territory and began its occupation of East Jerusalem and the surrounding West Bank. In June 1980, Israel’s ‘Basic Law’ declared ‘East and West Jerusalem the United Capital of Israel’, effectively annexing the whole of Palestinian East Jerusalem, in contravention of international law. This move was rejected by UN Security Council Resolution 478 and has not been recognised by the majority of the international community, despite Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy there in May 2018.

Today, the distinctively modern neighbourhoods of Israeli West Jerusalem are a marked contrast to the Palestinian neighbourhoods in the East. Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem are required to pay taxes to the state of Israel like the residents of West Jerusalem, but do not receive the same services. In areas such as Silwan and Al Sawwiya, unkempt roads and concentrated housing provide evidence of the disparity in spending on services such as rubbish collection and highway maintenance.

‘Israel claims to treat Jerusalem as a unified city, but the reality is effectively one set of rules for Jews and another for Palestinians.’

Human Rights Watch

The Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim in the background, the Palestinian village of Jabal al Baba in foreground

Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the ‘Greater Jerusalem’ area

The annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980 paved the way for the building of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied eastern part of city, with over 200,000 Israeli settlers now living there. Israel has also embarked on a project to expand its ‘Greater Jerusalem’ project deeper into the occupied West Bank with the establishment of new, large settlements such as Ma’ale Adumin (picture above). These well-planned and growing suburbs surrounding occupied East Jerusalem, with tens of thousands of settlers living in them, contrast sharply with Palestinian districts where it is extremely difficult to obtain planning permission from the Israeli authorities to build. To meet the needs of a growing population, many Palestinians choose to build without permission and live with the risk that their property will be demolished. From 2004 to the end of December 2018, Israeli authorities demolished 803 Palestinian housing units in East Jerusalem alone (B’Tselem).

‘Only some 15% of the land area in East Jerusalem (about 8.5% of Jerusalem’s municipal jurisdiction) is zoned for residential use by Palestinian residents, although Palestinians currently account for 40% of the city’s population.’


A Palestinian resident of Jerusalem is denied access to his street in the Old City during a settler parade on ‘Jerusalem Day’

Remains of a Palestinian home in Beit Hanina, East Jerusalem, demolished by the Israeli military

The Separation Barrier

Settler organisations such Elad continue to bring pressure to ‘Judaize’ and settle East Jerusalem and the surrounding ‘Greater Jerusalem’ area, not least in ‘The City of David Park’ where archaeological excavations since 1967 have attempted to prove a Jewish historical link to a land which has been occupied by Arab Canaanites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Muslims, as well as Jews. The state supports, and often funds, settler organisations which evict Palestinians from their homes in the city and replace them with Israeli settlers.

‘These settler enclaves have altered the neighborhoods in which they were established, making the lives of the Palestinian residents unbearable, the latter having to contend with legal proceedings aimed at driving them from their homes, invasion of their privacy, financial pressure and daily harassment.’


The rapid growth of settlements in and around East Jerusalem has also increased tensions and confrontations between Palestinians and settlers and brought with it an ‘increased presence of police, Border Police and state-paid private security personnel who use violence against the Palestinian residents, threaten them and arrest teens, thus exacerbating the disruption of life in the neighbourhood.’ (B’Tselem)

Settler children in the Old City

Israeli settler in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem

Residency Rights

Whilst all Jews in Jerusalem have full citizenship, Palestinians who were present in Jerusalem after 1967 were only given ‘residency status’ in the city. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza cannot become residents of Palestinian East Jerusalem and must apply for permits from the state of Israel if they wish to visit, through a complex process described by Israeli human rights group, Machsom Watch, as a ‘bureaucratic maze‘. Even for those who have ‘residency’ this status does not afford the same rights as citizenship and maintaining residency is a challenge. Palestinians need to abide by a complex, bureaucratic system, continuously proving their right to live in the city. Since 1967, Israel has revoked the residency status of 14,595 Palestinians (Human Rights Watch).

‘Palestinians need to be able to show that the city is their “centre of life” by submitting dozens of documents including rent contracts, salary slips, electric and water bills as well as tax payments. Entrenched discrimination against Palestinians in East Jerusalem, including residency policies that imperil their legal status, feeds the alienation of the city’s residents’.

EA John

The ’second rate’ status given to Palestinian residents also impacts marital relationships. If a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem wants to marry a person from another part of the West Bank or Gaza, their spouse cannot become a Jerusalem resident (barring extremely rare exceptions). Therefore, if they wish to live with their spouse, they must leave East Jerusalem and in doing so, forego their residency rights. This likely means they will no longer have easy access to their family, place of birth, place of work or other city amenities.

Renovations at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Prayers at the Western Wall

Religious Rights

Palestinian Muslims and Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza, who wish to visit Jerusalem to access their right to worship at the Al-Asqa Mosque or Church of the Holy Sepulchre, must apply for permits from the Israeli authorities. Whilst the government of Israel maintain that the permit regime is a security measure, decisions on whether to grant access are often made arbitrarily. This has a major impact on thousands of Palestinian worshippers wishing to visit Jerusalem, despite the fact that they are ‘not involved in any part of the struggle against Israel.’ (Machsom Watch)

‘Although Jerusalem is a holy city in the religious traditions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, Jewish groups in this city receive preferential treatment. Through the illegal annexation of East Jerusalem and occupation of the West Bank in 1967, Israel effectively gained control of all religious sites in historic Palestine. Palestinians who could once roam freely around historic Palestine now find it difficult to visit religious sites due to restrictions on their freedom of movement. These discriminatory policies contribute to a larger Israeli effort to erase non-Jewish heritage in historic Palestine.’


Israeli soldiers close off roads in the Old City on Easter Sunday for international pilgrims

Muslims blocked from visiting Al-Asqa Mosque prepare to pray outside

Palestinians queueing at Qalandia checkpoint to visit the Al-Asqa Mosque during Ramadan

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